Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

WMATA gears up for revamping the Bethesda Metro station entrance

May 21, 2012 - 10:50 AM
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

WMATA hopes to kick off Metro Forward work at the Bethesda Metro station soon and is planning, wisely enough, to stagger its work stages — starting in late May, the transit agency will take four months to rehabilitate the entrance elevator at Bethesda in anticipation of replacing the 212-foot-long escalators, the second longest in the system, in 2014. Remember, this is the Maryland Metro entrance that baffled New York Times columnist Tom Friedman with its slow repairs and led him to turn WMATA into a metaphor for American mediocrity last year.

A recent Metro announcement is draped in responsible language on the replacement and rehabilitation — "prudent," the transit agency says. The elevator has gone about 28 years without rehabilitation, according to Metro, and 10 years since ADA upgrades. It will receive a new cab, motor, and control system, among others. The agency will offer free shuttle service between Medical Center and Bethesda during the rehabilitation work. The station may have to close if both the elevator and the escalators fail, despite a technician on scene: "In the event that all three units are out of service, the station will need to temporarily close for safety reasons," Metro announces ominously.

What's also worth remembering is that these Bethesda escalators and elevators are in such poor condition not only due to their decades of age but from an acknowledged history of neglect and poor upkeep practices from the agency, as we learned from a 2010 audit.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: Vertical Transportation Excellence)

At the request of WMATA's General Manager Richard Sarles, Vertical Transportation Excellence audited the transit agency's escalators and elevator practices and in late 2010, submitted a report on the entrances of four stations, including Bethesda. Of the four stations, Bethesda was the only Metro station to receive ratings of no higher quality than "poor" or "fair" in all assessed categories, perhaps in part due to the length of the escalators and their heavy use. The station's average weekday passenger boarding was about 10,765 riders in 2011.

But as Metro discovered two years ago, no one kept track of what happened with this popular station entrance. Consider this audit excerpt on the entrance elevator: "None of the spare parts appear to have inventory records tracking their location or use. The machine room does not have the sufficient space and storage capabilities to accommodate the materials. The maintenance condition of the machine room is poor." No one kept track of the parts? Perhaps in the same way no one kept track of the life-saving defibrillators Metro said it would prioritize years ago and only did once a person died earlier this year. In 2010 the Bethesda elevator showed signs of "minor rust" in multiple locations and "a minor accumulation of debris, dirt, and water" in the elevator pit. Auditor photos shows boxes scattered in disarray throughout the machine room, a state that "impacts maintenance" according to VTX.

These failings have amounted to broader escalator and elevator problems that plague Metro. In the last two years, WMATA says it wants to replace about 100 escalators and rehab plenty of elevators. Good. But the problem often ties into how the agency's workers maintain the equipment. Here's how Metro summed up some of the equipment and workforce utilization audit findings on those four stations, including Bethesda, to its Board in October of 2010. What's wrong with Metro entrances?

o Lack of adherence to maintenance standards

− Escalator switches require cleaning and adjustment

− Insufficient lighting in the machine rooms

− General housekeeping issues

− Stopping distance adjustments

o Water intrusion in machine rooms, hoistways and pit areas

• Unbalanced Preventative Maintenance (PM) schedule

• Co-location of Elevator/Escalator Operation Control (EOC) and Maintenance Operation Control(MOC) is an excellent configuration that ensures accurate communication and improved response time

• Elevator/Escalator issues transmitted from the Station Manager to MOC, rather than EOC directly

• Mechanics require training on necessary closeout information that is needed by EOC to ensure efficiency

• Shortage of Supervisors

Metro showed signs of realizing its problems in late 2010 and outlined a series of steps to remedy them, wisely, if not always on schedule. WMATA wanted to begin replacing the Foggy Bottom escalators, deemed "unsafe" by VTX, in November of 2010, work that began a couple months later than planned and that was not completed until November of 2011 (and the overall entrance changes not until this month). That's a start. The Dupont Circle Metro station is in the midst of replacing entrance escalators in a project expected to last more than eight months.

The escalator and elevator rehabilitation and replacement will continue to be a key component of Metro Forward in the years to come. Let's hope the practices continue to improve along with the equipment.

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